The two doctors abducted in a daring attack by gunmen in Mandera town on Friday had expressed concerns over their safety, the Saturday Nation can reveal.
Of huge concern to Dr Assel Herera Correa, a general physician, and Dr Landy Rodriguez, a surgeon, was the five-kilometre distance they had to cover daily from their house at Busley to their work station at the Mandera Level Four Hospital. They lived in a house owned by a county government official.
The two medics were ambushed at Banisa stage while driving to the hospital in a county-owned double-cabin pickup accompanied by two body guards, one of them who died in the attack, and the driver who was arrested and questioned.
Police Spokesman Charles Owino on Friday confirmed that the gunmen suspected to be Al Shabaab had crossed the border into Somalia with the doctors.
While the fate of the medics is unknown, a contingent of Kenya Defence Forces, various units of Kenya Police and Kenya Police Reservists had been dispatched to chase after the two vehicles used in the raid and abduction.
Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma confirmed security agencies were engaged in the search-and-rescue mission to ensure the doctors’ safe return. “Today we have been reminded, again, of the evil machinations of international criminal networks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in contact with the Government of Cuba,” she said.
Following the attack, a crisis security meeting was held in the border town. In attendance were North Eastern Regional Commissioner Mohamed Birik and Mandera East deputy County Commissioner Lawrence Omondi.
A senior security officer confirmed to the Saturday Nation that they had received complaints from the two who had requested that they be moved to the precincts of the hospital but their request had not been acted on.
“We also raised their concerns to our seniors and requested that they be moved to reside within the hospital but no action was taken,” the officer confided.
The officer added it was difficult for the abductors to strike at night since the town is manned by different security units in different areas and the high number of officers at the doctors’ home: “The attackers seemed to have taken notice of this and changed tack.” According to eye witnesses, the usually busy terminus was thrown into confusion some minutes past 9am when loud gunshots were heard, forcing locals to scamper for safety.
The armed assailants, who had arrived in two Probox vehicles, blocked the doctor’s pickup truck, alighted and opened fire at the Administration Police officer seated in the front seat, killing him instantly.
Witnesses said the other officer managed to escape in the attack as the gunmen quickly bundled the two health workers in one of the cars and sped off towards the Somalia border.
The driver of the county government vehicle ferrying the health workers was arrested and was on Friday evening being questioned.
“Everything happened at lightning speed. We pounced on one man who turned out to be a police officer,” a witness said.
Our security source said the morning incident appeared planned since no one at the busy bus stage attempted to block the two Probox vehicles. “There are so many taxis in the area but none attempt to block the two vehicles that sped away with the doctors,” he said.
Officers dispatched early to pursue the attackers returned and reported that they were not be able to tell which route was used by the abductors after crossing into Somalia. “We are told the road divides into three once you enter Somalia and our officers could not tell which one the abductors had used,” the source said. The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) took over the rescue mission.
At the hospital, Dr Rodriguez was scheduled to operate on patients Friday morning, according to a duty roster at the facility. The two doctors lived in the same house guarded by police reservists and two police officers. Two house helps washed, cooked and cleaned the house.
They were yet to get their own cars and relied on hospital drivers and vehicles, which they had complained delayed their movement. In an earlier interview with this writer, Dr Correa confirmed they usually had armed police guards.
“We have security personnel around us all the time but despite that Mandera is safer than many other places I have worked including Brazil’s Amazonas area,” he said.
When on duty, he used to attend to about 20 patients a day. He said locals were friendly and he was adapting to the culture.
Dr Mohamed Adan, the hospital’s Medical Superintendent had said the facility had recorded an upsurge in numbers of patients. Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union secretary-general Ouma Oluga condemned the incident.
“This incident is a reminder to all that medical workers should never be a target even during conflicts given the humanitarian nature of the services they offer,” he said in a statement.
Council of Governors chairman Wycliffe Oparanya said they would ensure health services are not interrupted.
“As a council we are here to support you and should there be any gap, we are ready to stand in,” Mr Oparanya said in a statement.
The abducted doctors are among 110 specialists sent from Cuba in June 2018 to improve the quality of medical services in rural areas.
Each of the 47 counties received at least one specialist as the Health ministry sought to bring the services of the contracted staff closer to the people.
Additional reporting by Kennedy Kimanthi and Collins Omulo